Ben Fowlkes
Monday July 25th, 2011

Every female fighter on the Strikeforce roster knows it: the clock is ticking on big-time women's MMA.

Ever since the UFC's parent company bought up its largest competitor -- which also happened to be the most prominent and visible employer of female fighters -- the women under contract have been eyeing the landscape and wondering how much longer the ride is going to last.

They have good reason to worry, too. UFC president Dana White has never been a huge fan of women's MMA, arguing that the ranks are too thin to promote a consistent division. Of course, part of the reason the ranks are thin is because of a lack of opportunities for female fighters, so that little merry-go-round of reasoning can spin around and around without ever getting anywhere.

But as long as Zuffa has Strikeforce on its ledger, it's going to get a closer look at what the women can do, which might be the best that MMA's most egregiously underpaid athletes can hope for.

This past Friday night, that look came in the form of a three-rounder between former Strikeforce 135-pound women's champ Sarah Kaufman and former Marine Liz Carmouche. It proved to be a mostly one-sided decision win for Kaufman, with Carmouche showing both her toughness and her inexperience at times.

It was a good fight, but not a great one. If they were two male fighters, it would have been solidly adequate. But as the women try to make their case to their new employers, it's hard not to wonder if good will be good enough.

In part, it's a numbers game. Female fighters don't get featured on every card, and when they do there's usually only space for one women's fight. As a result, each fight is forced to shoulder more of the burden for the division as a whole.

That's a pressure every female fighter feels. Just ask Miesha Tate, who will challenge for Marloes Coenen's 135-pound title at this Saturday night's Strikeforce. As she told MMAFighting.com recently: "We usually only get one [women's] fight per fight card. Sometimes it might be boring, just like the men, but then all of women's MMA gets judged on that one fight."

Female fighters already know how Zuffa feels about them, and few are kidding themselves that Strikeforce will stick around in its current form indefinitely. All you have to do is ask White a Strikeforce-related question to watch him get the weary look of a man who has purchased a rental property that he now regrets. Sure, it sounded like a good deal at the time, but then he found out that the neighborhood was headed downhill and the tenants were a walking headache, so now he seems ready to yank the copper wiring out of the walls, sell off the appliances, and bulldoze the rest.

If the female fighters are going to be the part that stays rather than goes, they have to make their case during this transition period, and they have to make it loudly and forcefully. They need compelling fights almost every time out, and they can't afford an off night.

When you think about it, that's an almost unreasonable amount of pressure. You could also argue that, since White's complaints are less about the richness than the depth of the division, even if the women do put on a consistent fireworks display they'll still get the boot when Zuffa eventually consolidates its assets. That could very easily happen, but for the women to start thinking that way now would be to give in to cynicism, and therein lies damnation.

No, all they can do now is audition, and they know it. They have to make themselves the story, even when they aren't. Will a few good fights here and there be enough to convince the Zuffa brass to give them a closer look in the future? Maybe. Or maybe the women's division will become the sole province of Bellator, thus further lowering salaries for the fighters who are already forced to scrape by on a fraction of what their male counterparts make.

Whatever the future brings, and however grim the outlook may be at times, it's telling that you so rarely hear female fighters complain -- and the gripes are there if they want them. As much as fans adore fighters who suffer for their cash, you'd think they'd be even more impressed by the women who suffer just as much for far less. While there probably aren't many male fighters who are in this solely for the money and the chance to be on TV, we can rest assured that there are zero women who are doing this for any reason other than a driving passion. The rewards for them are too meager to do it if they don't absolutely love it.

Where the women's division will go from here is partly up to their performances in the cage, but also up to the fans. Say what you will about the UFC -- it listens to its fans better than any other MMA promotion, and generally does its best to give them what they want.

If fans want to see female fighters have their day, then at least there's hope. If not, we can't exactly complain that there aren't enough women signing up to fight if we're not there to support them when they do.

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